We review Colonel C E Callwell’s famous Late Victorian counter-insurgency manual, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice.

The military academies are buzzing with counter-insurgency theory. Recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere are putting a premium on anti-guerrilla doctrine. Little wonder, then, that Colonel C E Callwell’s Small Wars, a century-old manual for fighting colonial wars, has been rediscovered. It probably ranks as history’s first comprehensive counter-insurgency textbook.

Charles Edward Callwell (1859-1928), an Anglo-Irish officer, had a long and distinguished military career, finishing with the rank of major-general and a knighthood. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1878, he experienced first-hand the 1880 Afghan War, the 1880-1881 First Boer War, the 1897 Greco-Turkish War, and the 1899-1902 Second Boer War, when he served on the staff of Sir Redvers Buller and later commanded a mobile column. Having retired in 1909 to devote himself to writing, he was recalled in 1914 to serve as Director of Military.

Operations and Intelligence

Small Wars was first published in 1896 and then republished with revision in 1899 and 1906. It quickly established itself as a standard British military manual. Others also found it useful. As well as being translated into French, copies were highly sought after by IRA officers during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921)!

Royal Navy personnel operate a Nordenfeldt machine-gun - Egypt, 1882

The book is a testimony to Callwell’s intelligence, experience, and character. It is encyclopedic in form, with each chapter annotated with marginal key-notes, and an exhaustive glossary-index at the back. It is impossible to get lost, easy to find anything you need, and the text is always clear and concise – Small Wars is a practical manual for learning and use.

The reflection of Callwell’s social world is unmistakable. A man of the landed elite, of the Late Victorian officer caste, and of solidly conservative outlook and values, it clearly never occurred to him to question the imperial mission. ‘Savages and semi-civilised races’ were to be pacified. ‘The territory of barbarous races’ was to be added to that of the great powers.

‘Campaigns for the suppression of insurrections or lawlessness or for the settlement of conquered or annexed territory’ were a necessary part of the natural order of things. We may choose not to follow him in these assumptions. But let that not detract from the richness of military theory and historical insight to be found in the pages of Small Wars.

Callwell stresses the diversity of small wars. Terrain varies from the open veldt of South Africa, through the boulder- strewn mountainsides of the North-West Frontier, to the dense bush of West Africa. Opponents might be Ashanti tribal warriors armed with primitive firearms, Sudanese Dervishes launching massed charges with spear and sword, or skilled long-range snipers equipped with modern rifles like the Boers.

Implicit in much of Callwell’s discussion is a contrast between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ forms of resistance. European imperialists were often waging war against political and social systems that were essentially tribal or feudal in character. Against them, the invaders pitted not just superior armament, but method, discipline, and cohesion. By such means – by the aggressive delivery of firepower concentrated and close-up – its moral as well as its physical effects were maximised.

A British convoy under attack by mounted Boer guerillas - South Africa, 1901

Colonial war, Callwell repeatedly argued, had to be proactive: ‘… success should be sought for in attack, in preserving the initiative in tactics, as in strategy, and in reaping to the full the benefit of moral effect by assuming and maintaining a dominant bearing’. Or again: ‘It is a fundamental principle of tactics when operating against such foes that the troops must get at their adversaries and give them a lesson which they will not forget’.

European colonial armies employed not only the superior armaments of modern capitalist industry, but also its higher-level organisation and mentality. This empowered them to deliver the ‘shock and awe’ that won and held vast empires in the late 19th century.

But there are clues in Small Wars to a different future. Callwell’s own life and career straddled two worlds, and he detects a sharp contrast between the weakness of traditional enemies and the far more formidable threat posed by modern ones. The Boers he places in a category of their own.

It was not simply that the wealth of South Africa’s mines and farms had placed in their hands the most up-to-date of armaments – Krupp guns and Mauser rifles. It was also that Afrikaner nationalism, embodied in the two Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, gave to the farmers of the veldt an identity, a social cohesion, and a politico-military organisation that were thoroughly modern. The Second Boer War contained the germ of modern guerrilla warfare.

Long-range, rapid-fire, precision weapons cut two ways. In the hands of Europeans facing a rush of Dervish or Zulu spearmen, they can engineer a massacre, a one-sided slaughter that is hardly battle at all. In the hands of guerrillas, they can contribute to a new paradigm of war.

Strategy favours the guerrilla, tactics the regular. Ideally, guerrillas remain detached from their enemies most of the time, while regulars ‘seek and destroy’. Guerrilla fighters armed with muskets – like those who fought Napoleon’s armies in Spain in the early 19th century – could kill only close-up and slowly.

This made them vulnerable to the superior firepower of their opponents. Modern magazine rifles shift the military balance in favour of the guerrilla. They make it possible to kill at long range, or to kill fast in a close-range ambush. Modern firepower thus gives rise to the ‘empty’ battlefield of extended space and dispersed deployment, where the guerrilla is much safer.

The Pathan tribesmen of the North-West Frontier were also evolving into more formidable opponents as Callwell wrote. He quotes the words of a British general to his troops during the Tirah Campaign of 1897: ‘… we are opposed to perhaps the best skirmishers and the best natural shots in the world … the enemy’s strength lies in his thorough knowledge of the ground, which enables him to watch all our movements unperceived and to take advantage of every height and ravine … our weakness is our ignorance of the country …’ Echoes here, perhaps, of modern military dilemmas. Small Wars is rich in lessons about both the past and the present.

Further information

A facsimile edition of Small Wars: their principles and practice by Colonel C E Callwell is currently in print and available on Amazon.

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